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As Great Salt Lake shrinks, fate of nesting pelicans unknown

By Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Oct 11, 2015
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Russell Norvell, avian conservation program coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, selects a juvenile pelican living on Gunnison Island for tagging on July 15, 2014. This year marked the fifth season DWR has done its pelican tagging program on the island in the Great Salt Lake, which is home to one of the largest pelican colonies in North America.

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July 15, 2014.

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July 15, 2014

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July 15, 2014

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Bird researchers carry juvenile pelicans from a corral to banding stations on July 15, 2014.

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Young pelicans are collected in a temporary corral on Gunnison Island on July 15, 2014.

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Adam Brewerton with Utah DWR catches a young pelican on July 15, 2014. Around 250 juvenile birds were be tagged on each wing, banded around the leg, then released.

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A team of researchers arrives early at a launch site near Promontory Point on July 15, 2014. A pelican banding effort is held one every year at Gunnison Island, an important nesting site for American white pelicans. Apart from the banding trip, the island is closed to human visitors.

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A boat arrives at Gunnison Island on July 14, 2014. The island is located about six miles from the Great Salt Lake's west shore and around 12 miles from Promontory Point.

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A team of approximately 30 bird researchers anchors boats and assembles near the salt-covered shores of Gunnison Island on July 15, 2014.

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Wildlife biologists scout the bays on Gunnison Island for young pelicans on July 15, 2014. After finding a pod, the scientists wrangle the birds into corrals so they can be tagged and banded.

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Biologist hike a ridge on Gunnison Island to search for juvenile pelicans on July 15, 2014. The researchers approach the pods of birds from different directions to help corral them for banding.

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Researchers build a corral for juvenile pelicans on July 15, 2014.

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Researchers wrangle a flock of young, flightless pelicans into a corral on July 15, 2014. Moving the birds into temporary corrals helped researchers tag 250 birds in about 2.5 hours.

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Avian researchers managed to corral and band around 250 juvenile pelicans on July 15, 2014. The team selects juveniles while they're still flightless, but are independent enough for adult birds to leave the island in search of food.

Gunnison Island lies in the part of the Great Salt Lake where the salt is so thick, bacteria have turned the water lavender.

It’s only six miles from the mainland, but the strange colors make the island seem otherworldly — soupy amethyst waters, snow-white salt beaches, black rock and cerulean sky. It’s a land that’s proven inhospitable to humans. There’s no shade, no fresh water and few plants.

Still, life thrives.

Gunnison Island is home to one of the largest breeding colonies of American White Pelicans in North America, which specifically select the site for its seclusion.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story originally published in the Standard-Examiner July 17, 2014. Minor edits were made to update the story. It is included in the ‘Losing Great Salt Lake’ series to highlight the importance and vulnerability of the Great Salt Lake’s islands and ecosystem.

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

Megan Keil of Tracy Aviary, left, Gib Rokich of Salt Lake City International Airport and Rebecca Bishop of Tracy Aviary boat through the purple waters of the Great Salt Lake’s north arm to Gunnison Island on July 15, 2014. The Tracy Aviary and airport are major contributors to a pelican banding study on the island, which is managed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.


A sweltering day in July 2014 offered a rare occasion to see the colony up close. For two days each year, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources officials and a motley team of volunteer bird enthusiast make the trip by boat, banding hundreds of young birds by hand. Their goal is to band 250 birds in two hours with only about 30 people.

“It’s such a big production that we’ve fortunately scaled it down to just two days a year,” said John Luft, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “The whole reason they’re out there is because they can’t stand disturbance.”

The state owns the island, and has permanently closed it to tourists to preserve the nesting birds’ solitude. As a state wildlife management area, the island also gives bird researchers an important insight into pelicans’ habits, although they mostly monitor the colony by aerial surveys. Over the decades, the colony has significantly expanded bird biologists’ understanding of pelican behavior.

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

A flock of gulls takes flight as biologists survey Gunnison Island in search of pelicans on July 15, 2014.

“We know a lot about this particular population,” said Don Paul, who has studied the island for the Utah DWR since 1980. “We’ve contributed to others working with colonies throughout western North America.”

There’s still plenty to learn, which is where the banding and boat trip come into play.

Researchers wrangle juvenile birds into pens, then catch them and restrain them. Even as juveniles, the pelicans are as large as full-grown turkeys. And they put up a fight.

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

Adam Brewerton, a biologist with Utah DWR, nets juvenile pelicans at Gunnison Island on July 15, 2014

The color banding project is all about timing. There’s a limited window between when the juvenile birds are too young to band and when they’ve fledged and can fly away. There’s also a small window during the day for researchers to round up the juvenile birds. Adults catch morning airstreams to hunt fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge 30 miles to the north. Adults can be gone hunting for days, but if they parents while researchers are still tagging, the young birds won’t get fed and they may not survive.

The state has banded pelicans’ legs for decades, but this is only their fourth year using colored bands on the birds’ wings. The large tags are easier to spot from a distance and provide valuable information on the birds’ migration patterns.

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

July 15, 2014.

“I get reports about once a week or so from birders in southern California to way down in Mexico,” said Russell Norvell, avian conservation program coordinator with the Utah DWR. “This is going to give me some idea of where our birds go.”

The research also provides information on the birds’ interaction with human populations. The Salt Lake International Airport has thrown a large chunk of funding into the pelican banding project to better understand their movement and reduce strikes with aircraft. 

Conflicts have also arisen with anglers, who have increasingly complained the birds are over-predating sport fish.

“It’s mostly misguided, to be perfectly honest,” Norvell said. “Pelicans primarily go after what they call ‘trash fish,’ the native fish people don’t actually go for — chubs and things like that.”

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

July 15, 2014

Even with its remote location, raising young chicks on Gunnison Island doesn’t ensure their survival. According to Luft, the colony’s pelicans only have a nesting success rate of around 25 percent. Hungry gulls often snatch eggs and young chicks. Other juveniles face starvation, thirst and injury. Drought, water diversions and a changing climate could bring even more threats.

“We’ve been figuring, with the lake level dropping, it would create a land bridge,” Luft said. “Once you have one coyote come in there, it pretty much wipes out the whole colony.”

Editor’s note: In 2015, lake levels dropped low enough to create a land bridge to Gunnison Island. Biologists working at the 2015 pelican banding trip reported seeing evidence of coyotes, a snake and tire tracks. 

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

Avian researchers set off to depart Gunnison Island as a flock of adult pelicans return just before noon on July 15, 2014. The team continues to band around 500 juvenile pelicans each year in an effort to better understand their migration and behavior, as well as impacts to flocks from dropping Great Salt Lake levels.

For now, the island continues to successfully harbor a stable population of pelicans, usually between 6,000 to 12,000 nesting adults, although Luft said surveys have found as many as 20,000. The first human to explore the island, Howard Stansbury, noted “immense flocks” of the birds in 1852. Those numbers took a dive during the decades people tried to make a living on the island harvesting bird guano in the 1870s. Pelicans apparently only visited then, but nesting populations immediately jumped back to the thousands once humans abandoned their economic efforts, leaving the rocky island to the birds.

“That’s how you can tell how important it is for them to be in a place that isn’t susceptible to disturbance,” Luft said. “They’re willing to risk not being very successful on their nests just so they don’t have people pestering them. Or other mammals. Or predators.”

Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner

Although juvenile pelicans seen on Gunnison Island are largely isolated from danger, they’re still susceptible to death from thirst, starvation or injury, as captured by this photo on July 15, 2014. The bird had been tagged and banded by researchers the year before but did not survive into adulthood.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter @LeiaLarsen or on Facebook.com/leiaoutside.

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